Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Unhappy inheritance

Ten years ago her parents left her a small flat in their will. Now her partner says it's time to redecorate and sell up - but she just can't bring herself to do it.

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,


Ten years ago, I was left a small flat by my parents. I let it to relations and have friends staying there for holidays. My partner says we should sell it so we can get a bigger place but although I’ve often tried, when it comes to it, I can’t bear to sell it. Worse, I can’t bear to do any repairs or repaint it inside and it’s getting to look really run-down. I feel it would be disloyal to my mother. I have started having panic attacks and crying just at the thought of it, frankly. What can I do? My partner’s getting understandably fed up.


Yours sincerely,




Virginia says...

This isn’t really about your parents’ flat, is it? Not the actual physical thing. It’s about your parents themselves. You’re keeping them alive in that flat, somehow, and you fear that if you were to sell it, you would have to face the reality of their deaths in a way that you haven’t been able to face so far. 

When I researched a book on pet bereavement, I heard many stories about widows who’d managed to cope perfectly well with their husband’s death while their husband’s old dog was still alive. But once the dog died, they completely broke down. 

I’ve got three suggestions to make about how you might help yourself. One is obvious: go and see a bereavement counsellor and talk it all through. You may feel you’ve got over your parents’ deaths, but talk, instead, about the flat and what its loss really means to you and I think you may get to the heart of the problem.

The other thing to do would be to start making small changes to the flat. For instance, don’t repaint an entire room. Just repaint the skirting boards. Repaint them in exactly the same colour, if you like. And try not to think of it as painting over memories of your mother and father, but, rather, of loving them, of keeping them safe and happy by continually repairing and looking after them. If you can make that leap, you might well find yourself on the way to making small changes until, eventually, the flat might, after you’ve spent so much time on it, become more to do with you than with them – and as a result it might be easier to part with.

Or might it not be possible to think of  the money you’d get from the sale of this flat as “your parents” in some way, and then, by sinking it into a new property, taking them with you? You could take all the old furniture and pictures with you, even decorate it in the same style, so that in the end you might feel even closer to them because instead of having the memory of them in a separate flat used by friends and tenants, you’d be actually living with their memory around you. You needn’t live in a kind of shrine to your parents – I sometimes look around and wonder if there’s anything of my own in the house I live in at all, since it’s nearly all from my parents  – but nearly everyone needs some family objects around them as comfort blankets.

But until you’ve found some way to deal with this, I’m afraid your partner, frustrated as he is, will just have to wait.

Virginia Ironside’s book is ‘No!  I Don’t Need Reading Glasses’ (Quercus £14.99) is out now 


Readers say...

Move forward

Keep harking back to the past, and you’ll end up like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Loyalty to your parents does not entail dedicating the flat as a shrine to their memory. Though it’s been 10 years, perhaps you need grief counselling to help you come to terms with your loss. But for their sakes, plus yours and your partner’s, you must use this asset wisely, and build on your future happiness. That’s what inheritances are for. 

Alice May, Aberdeenshire

Take it step by step

Your partner is looking at things from a practical point of view and the flat does not have the same sentimental value to him as it does to you. If you are finding it difficult to even renovate it, asking you to sell it is asking for a bit too much. I think it’s important that you try to restore the flat and keep up with regular maintenance work. This does not mean you have to change anything other than trying to keep it decent. After that it would be sensible to hold off trying to sell it and letting it out via a letting agent instead. Use the rent towards your current or future mortgage and your partner will have to understand that that is the best you can do for now.

Nowmi Zaman, Staffordshire


Next week’s  dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Before we married, my husband was affectionate, but now, although we often have sex, he’s stopped cuddling or loving talk. He works very hard, and if I snuggle up to him on the settee he just smiles and continues reading the paper. I love him so much, but it’s like living with a box of chocolates that is permanently locked. He says he loves me if I ask, but that’s about it. I think he thinks that now we’re married we needn’t bother with any of the lovey-dovey stuff, but I feel so emotionally frustrated. How can I get him to change?

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Debbie to do?

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